Sarah Tavel posted this morning on something I've been thinking about for a little while now: Twitter Spitter. That's the term she's given to machine generated updates from apps trying to co-opt Twitter as a viral marketing mechanism. Whether it's a Foursquare update or a Nike+ run recap, lots of apps are realizing that letting people post to Twitter can drive a lot of growth.
Here's the problem, in Sarah's view:
"...the natural evolution of this is that Twitter will be increasingly abused by new web apps hoping to leverage Twitter’s effortless word-of-mouth. There is no mechanism in Twitter that I know of to limit what I’ll call web app Twitter “spitter”, and so there is no reason for web app companies not to push their app-specific messages to Twitter. And while conceivably there should be a natural mechanism of Tweeters not wanting to abuse their followers by allowing too much “spitter”, that mechanism is just not that efficient. I’m willing to put up with my friends’ spitter in much the same way that you put up with a friend’s occasional bad jokes or body sounds. But that’s not to say that spitter doesn’t degrade my experience on Twitter. As more applications look at FourSquare as an example of how to leverage Twitter, Twitter is going to increasingly become a jungle of 3rd party tweets."
Justin Shaffer said something similar to me the other day at breakfast--that we'll soon be near 80% conversation and 20% autotweeting from 3rd party apps. He said, "What happens to the value of Twitter when it's the other way... 80% autotweets?"
I think we all know what happens then--the value of Twitter falls off the table, and it happens long before we hit 80% autotweets.
The problem is that Twitter Spitter is inherently a watered down, out of context version of behavior on the actual app. Despite being guilty of Foursquare posting myself, I'll admit that to my Twitter followers, hearing that I'm at a particular place isn't as useful via Twitter as it is on Foursquare itself. Foursquare provides the appropriate context and action steps to deal with this piece of structured information.
This was basically the Friendfeed problem. Friendfeed waters down a person's activity across social networks and throws it all at me at once. So, if you follow a person because they have a great blog, you're also going to get pictures of their kids on Flickr.
I go back and forth about this, and while I appreciate the value of getting to know the whole person, I also feel like it degrades me signal. What I realized is that it's not the fact that this esoteric content is in my feed, it's that the receiving mechanism isn't built to make the most out of the structure it contains.
The solution, in my mind, is to make Twitter clients, like Tweetdeck, smarter. Since Twitter Spitter usually comes with an underlying link, it wouldn't be hard to give users the opportunity to opt out of these kinds of automated updates.
Even further, you could imagine channeling these links into more appropriate interfaces.
For example, how about:
- A map panel that aggregates all the Foursquare, Brightkite, etc. checkins and displays my friends' last known location.
- A play button for music that I can use to play, when I want, all of the aggregated songs posted to twitter throughout the day, even sorted by tags or genre.
- That same play button for video.
- A meme panel that collects and ranks the top links from all the people I follow on Twitter or different groups.
- A suggested user list powered by Follow Friday.
This way, people can post all the Spitter they want, and it doesn't get in the way of the real time conversation I came to Twitter to find in the first place. Otherwise, Twitter is soon going to become the MySpace of real time--overburdened by so much spam at a critical time that the key users jump ship for more well controlled pastures.